It was 1865, the American Civil War was coming to a close. The south was changing rapidly and the confederate chokehold on the region was coming to an end. Former slaves from Edgecombe County in North Carolina fled slave plantations for Union Army encampments. They were seeking protection from the confederates and freedom from slavery. Not long after their arrival, Union soldiers left for the north, leaving the land to the now-freed slaves of Edgecombe County. They began to slowly build the community of Freedom Hill, incorporating the town in 1885 and naming it Princeville, the first Black town in the United States.
Edgecombe County was an important area for slavery in the south. In 1860 almost sixty percent of the county’s population were slaves. The area was rich with tobacco farms and white plantation owners relied on the slaves in Edgecombe to cultivate and labor in their fields. More than 10,000 slaves lived in the county and almost all of them tended to the tobacco fields. But once the civil war ended former slaves weren’t obligated to work the farms and had control over their labor. This gave the former slaves power that they didn’t previously possess. Whites were furious that free Blacks were living among them, but the separate Black community of Freedom Hill supplied the surrounding white area with laborers and sharecroppers to tend the farms, as well as servants to tend the homes of former slave owners. The town was also home to carpenters, Blacksmiths, grocers, seamstresses brick masons. Although wealth was short, Freedom Hill became self-sufficient and was renamed Princeville in honor of ex-slave Turner Prince, a carpenter who had lived in the town since its founding.
At the turn of the 20th century, white supremacy threatened Black communities all over the south. But in Princeville Black residents were the majority and were eager to participate in the political process. Princeville and other Edgecombe County voters sent eleven Black men to the state legislature from 1877 to 1890. They served a total of fifteen terms in office. They also sent two Black representatives to Congress, James E. O’Hara of New Bern, from 1883 to 1887; and Henry Plummer Cheatham of Vance County, from 1889 to 1893. By the early 1900s as white supremacy began to influence legislation, Black representation was systematically excluded from politics. Literacy tests and poll taxes made it almost impossible Blacks for to vote, and local laws excluded Blacks from holding office.
In 1903, Tarboro, a predominantly white town located on the opposite bank of the Tar River from Princeville, pushed back against Princeville’s idea of a Black utopia and demanded the town’s charter be revoked, taking away its right to govern itself. The local newspaper was controlled by white supremacists. They printed stories that claimed Black were unruly and needed white “law and order” to function in their society. This would ultimately end Princeville’s Black political participation at the federal and state level, but residents continued to vote in municipal elections, and in 1883 the town established its first school with Black principals educated at some of the top universities in the country. By 1910 half of Princeville’s population could read and write and in 1912 the town added a high school curriculum to their school. They also built churches both Baptist and Methodist to serve the community.
Princeville’s unique experiment was a true testament to the will of ex-slaves during the period of reconstruction. It wasn’t attacked by an angry white mob or mysteriously burnt down in the late hours of the night. Mother Nature would ultimately be the town’s greatest foe. Major floods in 1924, 1928, 1940, and 1958 would shrink the town’s population by more than fifty percent. The Great Migration would also help to dwindle the number of residents in Princeville as Blacks from North Carolina relocated to larger more acceptable cities like New York and Philadelphia.
Princeville was founded by ex-slaves with a dream of creating a world for themselves. It still holds the memories of some of our greatest pioneers. Their stories should be in our history books and their legacies should be more than words on a tombstone in the Princeville cemetery. The people of Freedom Hill deserve their flowers because without their willingness to never give up on their dream of true freedom, we wouldn’t be who we are today.
To read more about the history of Princeville, click here.